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Why Howard Schultz for president makes great drama: it highlights the fragility and frustration of our winner-take-all system

Even four percent of the vote might decide the future of the nation. That’s precisely what makes his candidacy compelling — and controversial.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz Discusses His New Book In NYC
Howard Schultz, the billionaire former Starbucks CEO.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Yes, we are still talking about Howard Schultz’s plans to run for president as an “independent centrist.” It’s a story with legs not just because we love to hate an ego-maniac billionaire with no understanding of the American electorate. It also a story that dramatizes the fragility and frustrations of our winner-take-all two-party system.

The fragility is what makes the Schultz-for-president drip compelling: If he runs, he could swing the election to Trump. Even though Schultz polls in single digits, consistent with the single-digit fiscally-conservative, socially-liberal constituency he claims to represent, just 3 or 4 percent of the vote is enough to generate a very different future for the country. That’s the fragility of the system.

The frustration is why he is running in the first place. Schultz and his advisers note more than 40 percent of people now identify as “independents.” Voters really are frustrated with the political system and do want more choices. But just not Howard Schultz. And certainly not if he is going to tip the election.

Americans want more choices. But they’re not mostly not willing to risk voting for a third party. This perpetuates the lack of choices Americans complain about. The fragility convinces people to stick with the two major parties. The two major parties make voters frustrated with their lack of choices.

Winner-take-all elections make for fragile electoral democracy

Many Democrats still blame Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for George W. Bush’s presidency. If Nader hadn’t run, conventional wisdom goes, Nader wouldn’t have won 97,488 votes in Florida (1.6 percent statewide). Most of those votes would have gone to Gore, and instead of losing the Sunshine State by 447 votes, Gore would have won the state, and thus the presidency.

Nader, of course, frequently argued back that if Gore had taken on more progressive positions, Democrats would have stolen Nader’s voters back. Since we can only run history once, we’ll never know for sure. But probably Nader cost Gore the White House, a lesson Democrats remember keenly ahead of 2020.

But Nader’s old point is similar what Schultz and his defenders are saying today — that a would-be spoiler is saving the Democrats from themselves, and pointing the way to a winning strategy. In 2000, Nader thought Democrats had grown too centrist and timid, leaving behind the most progressive voters. Today, Schultz argues Democrats have grown too bold and leftist, leaving behind the more fiscally conservative “moderates” who are more skittish about progressive taxation and a more expansive social safety net.

It’s hard to please everybody in a broad coalition. This is why Americans are often frustrated with the two parties. Yet, in a two-party system, both parties have to be big-tent parties spanning a vast ideological spectrum. And though both parties’ spectrums are narrower today than ever before in American history, they are still quite broad by comparative standards.

But a two-party system gives party leaders one advantage: They can hold the coalition together through negative partisanship. That is, the more they point out how bad the other party is, the more they can hold together their own coalition. This is a key reason why our politics are so toxic, and this toxicity makes Americans frustrated with the two-party system.

Democrats will win many voters in 2020 almost regardless of who they nominate. A floor of at least 40 percent of voters want to see Trump out of office, no matter what. They’ll attach to the cause of just about any Democrat.

By being the party out of power, Democrats benefit from the unifying force of opposition. Many voters will make common cause just to see Trump out of office. With just one alternative, they’ll put aside their particular demands for a common purpose.

But once the election is won, they’ll go back to making those demands. And the narrow majority coalition will be harder to unify, without the common threat. This is yet another reason why many Americans are frustrated with the two-party system. It makes it hard to govern in polarized times.

Americans really are frustrated with the two-party system our winner-take-all elections generate

But what about those two-thirds of Americans who say they want more parties? What about those 40-plus percent of voters who identify as “independent”? Shouldn’t they have more choices? They should.

But in a winner-take-all system, they’d have to agree on one alternative that can beat one of the existing parties. And they definitely don’t.

In “Spoiler Alert,” a recent Voter Study Group report, William Galston, Tod Lindberg, and I looked at what voters said they wanted out of a third party: About one-third want a party of the center, about one-fifth want a party to the left of the Democrats, and about one-fifth want a party to the right of the Republicans, with the remainder wanting something else.

In short, even though 68 percent of Americans say that two parties do not do an adequate job of representing the American people and that a third party is needed, America would need at least five parties to capture the ideological aspirations of voters.

Certainly, it’s easy to overstate voters’ abstract desires for ideological positions, absent real parties. Voters often don’t know exactly what they want until prominent politicians tell them what they want. If new politicians and parties emerged to give life to new perspectives, they might well be popular.

But that would mean a new party overcoming the “spoiler problem.” And in highly partisan times, voters care which party wins. In 1992, when Ross Perot won 18.9 percent as a third party candidate (though not a single state), about 40 percent of voters didn’t see a difference between the two parties. They supported a third party candidate because they didn’t care if they wasted their vote.

Today, the vast majority of Americans see a difference. By our analysis, 77 percent of Americans feel better represented by one party or the other, leaving only 23 percent who are equivocal between the two existing parties. And overwhelming majorities of partisans feel well-represented by their parties (81 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans) and very poorly represented by the other major party (68 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans). Few Americans are willing to risk their vote on a third party or independent candidacy in the winner-take-all system.

As a result, the two-party system persists. And given winner-take-all elections, both parties are positioned about where they should be to have the best chance of winning a majority, given their very separate coalitions.

But that doesn’t mean voters are happy about the situation. “Independents” may indeed vote mostly like partisans. But in not affiliating with a major party, they are communicating something. If they are “undercover partisans” (as Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov call them in their book, Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction), they go undercover for a reason. Klar and Krupnikov find “independents” are more disenchanted with politics than partisans, and they feel disempowered and angry about it. They are even less compromise-oriented than partisans. And they are not necessarily moderates.

A quarter of Americans now view both parties unfavorably. Two-thirds of Americans think Democrats are out of touch with Americans’ concerns; and 62 percent think Republicans are out of touch with Americans’ concerns. These are big problems.

Honestly, we don’t know what happens when almost half of adult citizens refuse to affiliate with a major party in America. But we should worry. High levels of party disaffiliation correlate with low support for representative democracy. Bad things happen to democracies when large numbers of citizens feel alienated and unrepresented. Parties are the essential institutions connecting citizens with government. When citizens disconnect from parties, this is fertile ground for anti-system demagogues.

Electoral reform yes, Howard Schultz no

My prediction is that Howard Schultz will not be our next president. But by running and spoiling an election, he could highlight the fragility and flaws of our winner-take-all electoral system, perhaps stirring reforms.

Still, it would be much better if we fixed the flaws of our electoral system without a spoiled election, just as it’s better to fix a leaky roof before a major rainstorm, rather than after, when the damage has been done.

Our winner-take-all system is frail. And many Americans are upset about it. But the way to fix it is by making structural changes, not running spoiler candidates. Unfortunately, the more frustration builds, the more the constituency grows for a spoiler candidate in tune with the growing anti-system anger.

The best way to make American democracy more inclusive and make more voters feel better represented is for America to have more parties.

But to accomplish that, we’d need to change our electoral system. Ideally, we’d adopt a ranked-choice voting form of proportional representation, with multi-winner districts for the US House. This would generate more parties in Congress. It would make more elections competitive, and give parties reasons to set up offices across the country, not just in the limited number of swing states. This would improve politics.

This would make our electoral system much less fragile to the vagaries of spoiler candidates. It would also do wonders for breaking the toxic partisanship gripping Washington, by breaking the zero-sum dynamics driving this partisanship. A multiparty Congress would be a stronger Congress, because less of Congress would be oriented around two parties competing for narrow majorities. A stronger Congress would make presidential elections a little less high stakes.

Given the single-winner nature of the presidency, however, we’d probably still wind up with two broad coalitions for president. But ranked-choice voting would encourage more compromise-oriented candidates.

In a ranked-choice voting election for president, voters who like Schultz can vote for him, and then indicate their second-preference for either Trump or the Democrat. Once Schultz is eliminated, his voters’ second preferences will transfer to the remaining candidates. The winning candidate will earn a true majority. No spoiler.

Such a system might even boost Schultz’s candidacy. Rather than being dismissed as a spoiler, Schultz could run, and encourage other candidates to compete for his supporters. If his support is really as high as his internal polling suggests it is (around 17 percent), then a ranked-choice election would boost him to his true support, rather than discouraging voters afraid of spoiler effects.

But electoral reform is hard work. It involves major organizing work. A vanity project of running for president, it seems, gets you more attention.

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